Home Community A Poem in the Sidewalk

A Poem in the Sidewalk

By David Yamaguchi
For The North American Post

Sunday, January 29 dawned a bright and sunny but cool morning. The north-facing roof of my neighbor’s home, one of the first things I see each day, was covered with thick frost.

It was the start of a beautiful day for activating the day’s plan, which I had been waffling on in the cold and gray of the day before. The schedule involved three things: (a) leaving home at 9 a.m. to pick up my photography model and (b) seeing what there is to see at the Pike Place Market. The activities would necessarily include (c) getting in some walking, a part of my broader New Year’s resolution to get more exercise in 2023. Like most such weekend plans, part (d) involved taking photos that can become a story in this newspaper.

The Pike Place Market is to Seattle natives what the Kyoto temples are to Kyoto people. As a rule, residents almost never go to such places, because they are too crowded with tourists, expensive, etc. To photographers, the market poses additional challenges. As an international destination that has been photographed extensively, it would be hard to find subjects that the reader hasn’t already seen.

In any event, we felt that a cold winter morning would probably provide the best chance to visit the market at its most unimpeded.

The first parking lot that we paused to consider wasn’t encouraging. To park there for several hours would have cost $28. As locals, we reasoned — correctly — that we could find free street parking a few blocks away.

Surprisingly, within minutes of en­ter­ing the market on foot, I had two photos of the sidewalk poem above, thanks to the model’s sharp eyes.

The line outside the first Starbucks store in Pike Place Market

First, however, let me set the scene with my third photo of the morning. It is of people lining the sidewalk to get into the first Starbucks store, where I have been told they sell omiyage marked as such. The patient shoppers are likely tourists because no Seattle person would wait in such a line for Starbucks merchandise when branch stores are all over town. In retrospect, I should have walked closer to the line to see what languages they were speaking — to see if any were from Japan. In my pre-COVID-19 tour guide days, this is one of the destinations I would point out to such travelers on my tours.

A poem in the sidewalk nearby on the northwest corner of First and Pike Streets

“Here is where the Starbucks #1 is, come back on your own time,” my fellow guides and I would tell them. “Today, however, while we have the car, I’ll continue giving you a big-picture look at the city…”
Now let us return to the poem in the sidewalk, overlooking the market’s main entrance.
Its English reads,
“I have always known, that at last I would take this road.
But yesterday I did not know it would be today.
— Narihira”
There is kanji on its right side.

While in the market, I did not know what the poem was about and wasn’t even certain that it is Japan-derived. I just took my photos of it and moved on.

Later, at home, reading the poem at leisure, I could see why an artist had chosen it for that spot. It seems to fit the whimsical way that many find their way to Pike Place Market.
I also noticed clues to the poem’s origins. First, the worn surface of the brass artwork suggests that it has been there for some time. My guess is that it is an early “one percent for art project,” a city ordinance to introduce art to city-improvement projects. As that project began in 1973, fifty years might be enough time for the bronze metalwork to achieve its current scuffed look.

Second, that the artwork was done by a western artist is suggested by its brush strokes, which appear to me as not quite right. Still, I could not read them.

Through later Googling “Narihira” and verifying its kanji writing with Google Translate, the muddle became clear. The kanji are intended to read, 在原業平
(Ariwara Narihira). He was one of the poets of the “Hyakunin Isshu,” one of perhaps the two most famous poetry compilations of old Japan. In fact, it was he who brushstroked the famous lines,
ちはやぶる
神代も聞かず
竜田川
からくれなゐに
水くぐるとは
Chihayaburu
kami-yo mo kikazu
tatsuta-gawa
kara-kurenai ni
mizu kuguru to wa
Even when the gods
Held sway in the ancient days,
I have never heard
That water gleamed with autumn red
As it does in Tatta’s stream
The first word of this passage gives it away as the inspiration for the manga “Chihayafuru.” It later became a live-action movie series starring Suzu Hirose (2016-2018). Not long ago, we examined these very lines, in preparation for our studying the “Hyakunin Isshu” virtually with UW Professor Paul Atkins (napost.com, Feb. 2021).
The complete, original version of the Pike Place Market sidewalk poem reads,
つひにゆく
道とはかねて
聞きしかど
昨日今日とは
思はざりしを
Tsui ni yuku
michi to wa kanete
kikishikado
kinō kyō to wa
omouwazarishi wo
Long ago I heard
That this is the road we must all
Travel in the end,
But I never thought it might
Be yesterday or today.

Instead of being about whimsical shopping, the poem concerns death. It is Narihira’s last poem. In my ignorant Sansei bliss, however, I had been content to continue just wandering through the market.

Osara Store

By and by we would happen on the store, Osara, which means “plate” or “plates.” Therein, they have on display plates and more. In terms of merchandise that might be of interest o readers, the Caucasian owner mentioned used Japanese books, lining the hallway shelves, available for $1 each. They are not inside the store, he explained, because anyone who can read them would be honest enough to come in and purchase them.

In this day and age of rampant crime, I found it a worthwhile comment on Japanese honesty.

Waterfront construction below the market Photos DY

A fourth photo to wrap up this column is that of the construction chaos just downslope of the market. While it is hard to discern what is in the scene here, it is the beginnings of the broad pedestrian overpass connecting the market to the waterfront. Undoubtedly, we will hear more about this — possibly from native-daughter Joy Shigaki(紫垣喜衣), who is elbow-deep in it (napost.com, Sept. 2022) — in the years to come.


Note. A final clue to the Japanese origin of the poem is the distinctive artwork of the leaves. They are those of a katsura. It is a tree native to Japan and south-central China. Its wood is used to make goban, or go-boards.

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David Yamaguchi has written for the NAP since 2006, at first as a volunteer, then as a paid freelancer (2016-2020),then as a staff writer/editor (2020-2023). He is presently executive director of the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington (JASSW).